Looking back at 10 years in Cambodia

I came to Cambodia in September or early October of 2006, but thought it was just a stopover on my way to Thailand. I made the obligatory trip to Angkor Wat. I loved it, but was stunned by the numbers of tourists and the Disneyland-style entrance.

angkor wat 2006I returned to Phnom Penh with plans to take a bus to Thailand. I bought a pirate edition of the Lonely Planet guide to SE Asia from a hawker at a riverside cafe in Phnom Penh and looked up Sihanoukville. The writer didn’t have much good to say about it, so I decided to check it out. Little did I know it would soon become my home.

I liked Sihanoukville. At that time of the year it was quiet. I found a nice guesthouse with a pool near Ochheuteal Beach and took a walk to the beach after lunch. I thought I was going to see a bunch of hippies smoking weed because that was what Lonely Planet told me I’d see. Instead, I saw monks having a day off at the beach.

far end of ochheuteal beach, sihanoukville, cambodia, 2006

I didn’t want to take a tuk tuk to explore the city, so I rented a motorbike. That was a good call. I’d read about all the thefts in Sihanoukville, so was a little paranoid when I went for a swim on an empty beach. My motorbike was there after my swim even though a couple of motorbikes with three young men rode up to watch me swim in the balmy water. I decided to take Lonely Planet with a grain of salt after that.

Then I met Sopheak. I tried to leave once. I went overland to southern Laos. It was beautiful there. It was a bit of an adventure. I changed cars about three times because there were no ferries for cars, but the man who organized my journey for me did a brilliant job. There was always a car waiting for me on the other side of the river. When I crossed the border, I was stunned. The Cambodian side had been cleared for grazing or (I think) rubber plantations. On the Laos side, it was all jungle and the road was a rutted dirt road. You can read about it in my Deforestation in Cambodia blog.

My plan was to travel through Laos and then move on to northern Thailand, but I decided I didn’t want to be a sightseer. I returned to Phnom Penh just in time for the Water Festival. I called Sopheak and invited her and her family to come to the festival with me. That sealed my fate. I went back to Australia a few weeks later and returned on January 10, 2007. I had no idea I’d stay 10 years, but fate arranged things so I couldn’t return to Australia.

Before I left, I took Sopheak to Kampot and we went up to the top of Bokor Mountain. Back then it was a bit of an adventure. There was only a dirt road and only 4-wheel drives could get up it. Occasionally there was an accident. Fortunately, this wasn’t the car we traveled in.

bokor mountain cambodia 2006On the way home, we stopped in Khmeng Wat, the village where Sopheak’s family lived. This was their house.

khmeng-wat-cambodiaThen it was time to go back to Australia and get my affairs in order. When I returned, Sopheak threw a birthday party for me at the hotel where we stayed. Since we didn’t know anyone, she invited the hotel guests to come. They were happy to sponge free food and beer off of us and we had a great party.

10 Years in Cambodia

Then it was time to get serious. I wanted to buy land and build a house. After looking at a land, we finally agreed on a long, narrow block of land on a cul de sac near downtown Sihanoukville. I chose it partly because a couple of neighbors spoke English. Then work began on our house. There were no cement pumps in Sihanoukville then, so we hired a bucket brigade to pour our second-storey slab.

building-in-sihanoukville-cambodia-2007We finished half the house in 2007 and managed to squeeze a trip to Svay Rieng in while we were building. It was the dry season then, but it was still beautiful and quiet. Sopheak’s family came from a tiny village in that province. We were surrounded by rice fields, but they were dry. When we returned the following year, everyone was planting rice.

svay-rieng-2008I may have made a fatal mistake in 2007. Our next door neighbor was devastated because he was losing his job as director of a little NGO. He wanted to start a new one for the people on the Sihanoukville dumpsite. We agreed to help him and I became the secretary of his little NGO. We got enough donations to pay his salary and get a doctor to visit the villagers occasionally. Sokha wanted to start a business and one donor gave us enough money to go to Siem Reap and learn how to make paper from scraps.

Our NGO logo

It sounded like a good idea, but it never got off the ground. I got so wrapped up in the NGO, I barely noticed I was running out of money. Just when things were getting critical, one of our supporters rented a home for the children, sent them to school and fed them. It was time for me to think about our future, but one good memory remains. I learned that the dumpsite residents were like the rest of us. They were a village in the true sense of the word. True, the conditions were terrible, but they made the most of what they had.

I loved rural Cambodia and we went to rural locations whenever we got the chance. We had a car in 2008, so we could indulge. We also got married in 2008. Between that and finishing the house, my money was getting seriously low. I was still imagining I could get a job teaching English. I had a great recommendation and there were a few English schools in Sihanoukville. I never bothered to find out about the pay rate, though. I never got a job, but learned from a friend that they paid $3 per hour. Fortunately, the same friend had returned to the United States where he got a job for an SEO company.

Setting up our wedding party

In 2009, I ran out of money and we had to sell our car just to survive. Luckily, I got an online job through my friend that paid $10 an hour. That didn’t last long, but I discovered freelance writing. The first couple of years were hard, but I’m doing alright now.

Running out of money wasn’t as tragic as it may sound. I was freaking out, but Sopheak told me, “I never have loi (money) before, not dead.” She was right. We found ways to get by, some of them fairly miraculous. She started playing the lottery behind my back. She used her dreams to help her choose numbers and won far more often than chance accounted for. That’s just a taste of the “magic” I’ve seen in Cambodia. I just finished a book that was published in 1997, A Fortune-Teller Told Me, that recounts many similar stories. It was a great find because I was a little afraid no one would believe the stories I tell in my book.

By 2011 things were going more smoothly. I had steady work and a routine. Things would change over the years, but I’ve never regretted a minute of my time in Cambodia. I love it here. I can’t quite put my finger on why I love it so much. It’s not always easy, but it’s always real and the challenges keep me going.

I wanted to celebrate my 10 year anniversary with something special, but fate had other plans for me. Sopheak started a bar/restaurant her employer set up for her. She was going to throw me a big party, but I had an ache in my side that got worse on my birthday (the 9th). We went to the doctor, who told me I had appendicitis. He recommended Sonja Kill Memorial Hospital in Kampot, so Sopheak drove me there in her boss’s car. On the 10th, I celebrated my 10th anniversary by getting my appendix removed.

In a funny way, it was perfect. After 10 years and a changed relationship, I learned the relationship we have is still solid. What happens next, I don’t know, but I do know one thing. I’ll never regret moving to Cambodia. It’s been a wild ride, but an exciting one. What more can you ask for?

 

Phum Khmer Dey Meas Park in Sihanoukville Cambodia

I was kind of torn between writing about Phum Khmer Dey Meas park in Sihanoukville or writing about our day in rural Cambodia. Since this blog is about Sihanoukville, I decided to write about the park, but please read A Day in Rural Cambodia: the perfect Cambodian lifestyle after you’ve finished this article.

When you go to Otres Beach from Ochheuteal, you drive along a long straight road that’s next to what once was going to be a big resort and 9-hole golf course. It may become a resort one day, but for now it’s all fenced in. Eventually you come to a left turn that takes you to Otres Beach. Pretty soon you pass over a bridge. Just past the bridge you come to a sign you can easily miss.

park-entry-sign I missed it for a long time and when I noticed it, wasn’t curious enough to go inside. Last weekend we went to the far end of Ochheuteal for lunch and afterwards had a look around. It’s an amazing park and entry is free. The first thing you see is a huge collection of Hindu and Buddhist statues.

park-hindu-buddhist-statuesNothing is neat and orderly in the park. It seems to be set up kind of randomly. The next place we went was a kind of mini-forest complete with an old timber stilt house. As soon as we stepped into the trees, I felt like I was in a village in old Cambodia.

park-homeI turned around and saw more things to discover in the mini-forest. Aside from Hindu and Buddhist sculptures, there were sculptures of dogs and other assorted things. These two girls caught my eye.

park-statues-girlsThere are also lots of places to sit down and have a picnic lunch. Like I said, entry is free, but you have to bring your own food. Some of the picnic spots were concrete tables and benches in random spots.

park-tableOthers were on piers over the water.

park-diningThen there was this bridge that led to a bunch of picnic tables on the other side of the water.

park-bridgeI thoroughly enjoyed Phum Khmer Dey Meas Park. It was quirky and interesting. Apparently a rich man bought the land and built the park. He brings guests here once in a while, but leaves it open for the public all the time. I’m looking forward to having a picnic lunch here one day. The caretakers clean up the rubbish, so we didn’t see plastic everywhere. The only downside was the dogs, who hadn’t figured out they lived in a public park. They barked at me, but didn’t bite me. I ignored them and the caretaker called them off. After that, they just eyed me suspiciously.

park-buddhaSo if you’re ever on a motorbike or tuk-tuk heading towards Otres Beach, stop in at Phum Khmer Dey Meas park and have a look around. It’s not big. You can see everything in ten or fifteen minutes. It’s worth checking out. It’s quirky, but beautiful and these photos are just a taste of what you’ll see in the park.

park-jugNow that you’ve read about this delightful park in Sihanoukville, don’t forget to visit rural Cambodia. We had an amazing day there yesterday.

Pchum Ben in Sihanoukville 2016

I’ve written about Pchum Ben before. The first time was in 2011 and the second in 2012. There are probably other posts about it, too, but those two will give you some background about this two week long celebration. We usually go to wats (temples) far from Sihanoukville over Pchum Ben, but this year we stayed close to home. Last week we went to Wat Otres.

Pchum Ben Wat Otres Sihanoukville 2016This week, we went to Wat Leu. It’s been so long since I’ve been up there, it seemed like an adventure. Wat Leu isn’t the best maintained wat I’ve been to, but it has wonderful views and is surrounded by trees. You don’t really feel like you’re in Sihanoukville when you’re up there.

Pchum Ben Wat Leu Sihanoukville 2016We had a great time, mostly hanging out in the shade after going to the temple. They sell cold drinks and treats outside the wat. The atmosphere is relaxed and casual. That’s something I like about religious holidays in Cambodia. You’re expected to dress modestly in long dresses or long pants, but no one puts on spiritual airs. They do pay their respects to their ancestors in the temple, but after that they go back to normal.

Pchum Ben 2016 at Wat Leu, Sihanoukville CambodiaWe stayed for an hour or two and then went down to Independence Beach for lunch. After lunch the kids went for a swim and I stayed on shore making sure they didn’t drift away. Cambodians in general don’t understand ocean currents. Fortunately, the current was going sideways today, but I still had to herd the kids back when they drifted too far. There was a rip and a deep spot I didn’t want them to get near. Not sure if I mentioned it here, but one day I went to the beach and just after I dove in for a swim I had to rescue a kid who was being pulled out to sea. 10 people drowned over that week. Lucky I was there or he would have been the eleventh. Easy enough for me. I just told him to put his arms around my shoulders and I walked him to shore.

Independence Beach, Sihanoukville Cambodia 2016That was our day. We were home by 2:30, so I went to my “magic Cambodian cafe” for a cappuccino and cookie after we got home.

While I’m here, I want to mention two wonderful restaurants on the Hill. It’s a shame they don’t get more customers, but nobody gets many customers on the Hill. Raphael’s and Irina Franca are right next to each other. Irina Franca is run by a very nice Russian woman who is a superb cook. Unfortunately, I’m about the only person who knows it. She still makes a special every night. Last time I went there it was spinach and ricotta gnocchi.  I don’t usually like gnocchi, but hers was excellent. Raphael’s has a new owner, an Italian man who makes great pizzas and pastas.

Restaurants on the Hill in Sihanoukville CambodiaI don’t suppose my little post is going to change things for either restaurant, but I wanted to give them a plug. They’re both very good and it’s a shame they don’t get more customers.

A Visit to Klang Leu

When you drive into or out of Sihanoukville on Route 4, you pass an uninspiring looking row of retail shops. That’s the visible part of Klang Leu. What you don’t see is the residential district just behind the shops. Sopheak’s sister lives there and we visit now and then. It’s like another world from Sihanoukville.

klang leu near Sihanoukville Cambodia

Klang Leu and Route 4

I took the shortcut to Klang Leu. It took less than 10 minutes to get there from the new Douceur du Cambodge (Artisan Cafe). They moved from their old location between Samudera Supermarket and Psah Leu on the 1st of September. Now they’re on Ekareach Street next to the Sokimex station. The new place is much larger and nicer than the old, but they haven’t upped their prices.

Artisan Cafe Ekareach Street Sihanoukville CambodiaThe shortcut takes you up a steep cement street that is often crowded with traffic moving too fast for such a narrow road. The first thing I noticed was that building was going on even here. This large apartment building wasn’t there the last time I took the road

back road to sihanoukvilleYou can barely see the little roads that lead to the residential district of Klang Leu. A couple of them are paved, but the paving peters out quickly and the dirt roads get rougher the further you ride. After just a couple of hundred metres, you feel like you’re in rural Cambodia. The houses are simpler and wide areas separate them. I took this photo at a birthday party, but if you look at the background, you get the idea.

Klang Leu residential area near Sihanoukville CambodiaKlang Leu isn’t a rich suburb, but it’s not poor, either. Most of the people have jobs at the port, the nearby Cambrew Brewery or in town. It has a rural feel and most of the people seem happy. I ran across these boys playing with their homemade kites and they all smiled when I asked them if I could take their photograph.

kids with kites in klang leuWe have our eye on a piece of land in Klang Leu. We’re not likely to sell our house, but if we could, we would buy it. It’s a large parcel and has hard title. It has a wonderful view and a rural feel, but it’s just 10 or 15 minutes away from Sihanoukville. I imagine we’d have to improve the access road. It’s hard to get down even in the dry season, but 20 or 30 metres of gravel doesn’t cost that much and the land is cheap at the far edge of Klang Leu.

So next time you’re on Route 4 and you pass one of the many dusty towns along the road, don’t judge what you see by the shops on the side of the road. Behind those shops are thriving villages where Cambodians live much as they lived before the Khmer Rouge.

Looking back: 10 years in Cambodia

It’s hard to believe, but the first time I visited Cambodia was nearly 10 years ago. I was going to wait until September to write this post, but something happened yesterday that prompted me to write today. The kid in the photograph below is Sopheak’s little brother, Sarat. I met him in September or October of 2006 at his home in Khmeng Wat. The rain started to fall and he went outside to celebrate. I happened to be there with a camera. It’s the first photograph of him ever taken.

Sarat 2006

Yesterday I attended his engagement party. I like to tease him, but I’m very proud of Sarat. When he moved to Sihanoukville with us, he attended high school. He was behind the others, but stuck with it long enough to learn how to write the Khmer language. He quickly learned English from me and after he finished school, went out looking for work. He had a series of bad jobs, but stuck with it and found a niche for himself in the hospitality industry.

Sarat's engagement party

Sarat’s engagement party

After his engagement party, I reflected on the past 10 years. We’ve lived in the house I built in 2007, but aside from that, nothing has stayed the same. In the intervening years, I’ve been a part of five births and many family dramas. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve been bolstered by the smiles on the children’s faces and inspired by the way Cambodians adapt to change.

Coming from the West, I had some fixed ideas about how life should work, but gradually realised that I could indulge those fixed ideas because of my culture. We Westerners tend to believe in a road-map to success in life. It revolves around the accumulation of wealth. My generation grew up believing you took a series of steps and success would automatically come to you. It worked kind of like this:

  1. Go to school
  2. Learn a trade or
  3. Go on to college and
  4. Work in a profession
  5. Get married
  6. Buy a house
  7. Work for 30 odd years
  8. Retire

Moving to Cambodia has taught me that none of those apply to a large portion of humanity. Sopheak and her brothers and sisters didn’t have the opportunity to go to school. There was no road-map for them because nothing was fixed. Her generation had to improvise in order to get by in life. They didn’t even have the comfort of village life because the Cambodian economy was changing. As is happening all over the world, capitalism has come into the equation and villagers often have to move to the city to earn money. Some go because they want things like mobile phones. Others go to make money to send to their families.

The family home 2006. Five people shared one room.

The family home 2006. Five people shared one room.

Cambodians, like the rest of us, can be good, bad or a little of each. If I have noticed one general trend, though, it’s that most Cambodians include their families and extended families in the decisions they make. Selfishness as we practice it in the West is less prevalent here. We have the luxury of leaving our family and creating our own little worlds. They don’t have such a luxury because their parents don’t get pensions. If a Cambodian abandons their parents, their parents suffer. Often, their village will give them food, but a village can’t afford to pay a doctor or build a house.

I’ve been lucky enough to live with a large Cambodian family. I pay the lion’s share of the expenses, but don’t feel ripped off. The family pays me back in other ways. I’ve certainly had my dramas and have even been ripped off by a couple of family members, but when they were caught, they paid for it. I write about some of the major dramas in my book, but hopefully a more important message comes across. Whatever living here has cost me in money, I feel like I’ve been given much more.

I’m in a state of possible transition right now. Time will tell what happens, but so far, everyone involved has gone out of their way to ensure the transition benefits everyone, myself included. The last transition was nothing like this one and included bitter arguments and selfishness on both sides. If I am destined to move on, one thing I know for certain is that I’ll never regret a day of my 10 years in Cambodia. These have been some of the most enriching (in the real sense of the word) years of my life.

Our Khmer New Year

Khmer New Year is a holiday I dread and look forward to in equal measures. I dread it because our neighbour starts celebrating about a week early and plays loud music for about 12 hours straight. I look forward to it because we always go to at least one wat and have a big family dinner or two.

First stop: inside the temple at Wat Samathi

First stop: inside the temple at Wat Samathi

I never really knew why Khmer New Year falls at this time of year. Fortunately, a friend filled me in on Facebook.

It is the end of harvest and it lasts officially 3 days, but 5 days is more common practice. One of the rituals is washing Buddha statues and (grand)parents. That ritual is the origin of the water throwing. Thailand and Laos also celebrate new year (Songkran in Thailand), so it is not a specific “Khmer thing”.

He went on to say that “Bonn Chrot Preah Nangkol (Royal Plowing Ceremony) in May marks the start of the rainy season (or end of dry season).

We often go to more than one wat (temple) over Khmer New Year, but I only went to one this year. It happens to be my favourite wat, Wat Samathi. Wat Samathi (same as Samadhi) is near Ream. I like it because it has a trail around a mountain. After we pay our respects in the temple, the kids fortify themselves with ice cream and we start on the short walk around the mountain.

Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha

The kids take along a stack of 100 riel notes as offerings along the way. For them, the walk is an opportunity to pay their respects to Buddha and play. They couldn’t resist climbing these tree roots they discovered behind a Buddha statue nestled inside a big rock.

WatSamathi1If you’re in a hurry, you can do the walk in about 10 or 15 minutes, but we took over an hour. The kids found plenty to do and I was content to just enjoy the scenery. Except for the path and the paved areas, they’ve left nature intact and the views are wonderful.

I occasionally go to Wat Samathi just to get out of town. Doing the circuit on a weekday between festivals is wonderful because I’m the only one there. Then I’ll ride out to a restaurant overlooking the water in Ream. It’s a great escape from the city and now I can take a motorbike lane all the way to Ream and not have to worry about getting run off the road by a Lexus or big truck.

Our sojourn was over by about noon. Instead of going home, I took the new road down to Otres and had lunch at Papa Pippo’s. He’s not sure when the bulldozer’s will come (or if), but is continuing as normal until the day arrives. As I enjoyed my meal and the cool sea breezes, Bob Marley’s One Love was playing in the background. It seemed like the perfect song to finish off the day.

I got home at about 2:00 p.m. and had to catch up on some work. Miraculously, the music wasn’t blaring next door. It was a good day.

WatSamathi2

The roots the kids were climbing are behind this Buddha

More about Cambodian Traditional Medicine

cambodian natural medicine practitioner

cambodian natural medicine(1)I am so grateful to the man who commented on my previous post about Cambodian traditional medicine, My Magic Cambodian Natural Medicine. John Lowrie was formerly connected with an NGO that sought to preserve the culture of the people of Mondulkiri. His blog, A Northumbrian Abroad, deserves a larger following and the book he sent me, Traditional Therapeutic Knowledge of the Bunong People in North-eastern Cambodia, is brilliant.

What little I knew about Cambodian traditional medicine until I picked up the book the other day I learned from Sopheak. The first time she made a brew for me was about eight years ago, when I had a horrible bout of diarrhea. She ran out of the house and came back half an hour later with a tea she had made from some tree bark. I was in agony as I waited for it to cool and wasn’t sure it would help. The first sip made the cramping in my stomach stop instantly and by the time I finished a cup, I was fine.

The book John sent me was written by an NGO, Nomad RSI. The NGO has been working in Mondulkiri since 1997. The preface of the book starts by listing the academic credentials of the book’s creators, but goes on to emphasize the respect they have for indigenous healers. While they don’t show disrespect for our Western biomedicine, they point out some of the differences between the two modalities and make an attempt to bridge the gap between them. In their introductory remarks, Calum Blaikie and Laurent Pordie write:

There are a great many ‘traditional’ health practices which essentially deal with the physiological and biological, just as there is much in the vast body of knowledge-practice that constitutes contemporary biomedicine which reflects particular cultural orientations, epistemological frameworks, socio-economic and political systems.

The book goes on to give snapshots of a variety of healers. Some of them learned from others, while a few learned from spirits. At least one, Chuch Den, “had a dream where a spirit had called her to become a midwife. This was a sign for her and if the spirit had not appeared in her dreams she would not be practising today.” Chuch Den learned midwifery from her mother, but another healer, Deuy Kam, learned directly from spirits and says he “will transmit his knowledge through his spirit after he dies, as his mother had done with him.” Still others were forced to learn traditional medicine by the Khmer Rouge, one of whose aims was to purge Kampuchea of Western influences. Too bad they did it the wrong way. No good comes from force, as any true healer can tell you.

Cambodian natural medicine healer

My Experiences with Cambodian Traditional Medicine and ‘Magic’

We Westerners like to believe in reason. I began to see the limits of reason decades ago when I met the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met. Her intuition was undeniable and I have had experiences with her that defy logic. On the flip side, I’ve run into my share of charlatans and people who think they’re intuitive, but aren’t. Of course, the same can be said for anything. If there’s a buck to be made, some people think nothing of lying to make it and you meet self proclaimed experts (who aren’t) in every field. I think you need to keep an open mind, but a critical mind helps, too.

I’ve seen enough amazing things in my life that I was not incredulous when my wife told me a story about how a spirit appeared before her and taught her how to heal a wound she received when she was living in the jungle alone as a little girl. She jumped out of a tree and sliced her Achilles tendon on a shard of metal. Blood was gushing out. A man appeared before her and told her to mix spider web with mud and wrap it around her heal with a certain leaf. She did as instructed and the bleeding stopped. He told her to change the dressing every day and then vanished. The wound healed. I write about this and other experiences more extensively in my book. I won’t blame readers for not believing some of my stories, but most of them, as incredible as they sound, happened to me and I have to believe them. A few stories are second-hand, but I believe them because the people who told me the stories had nothing to gain and are generally as diffident as I am about sharing “miraculous” stories that might sound crazy to the average Western reader.

As Hamlet said to Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Our Western “philosophy” is one of reason. Intuition is such a rare occurrence in our reason-based society, most of us don’t believe it exists. Some who do believe in intuition consider it an extraordinary spiritual power. Personally, I think it’s a skill we’ve forgotten how to use. That’s what a psychic told us at a small gathering in Australia. He proved it to us when he taught us how to tap into it and let us experiment on each other. I’m sure it worked, but I’ve rarely been able to tap into it since. I once told a friend here in Cambodia about the experience. I thought he wouldn’t believe me, but he told me about his ex-wife, who often had psychic experiences. One day his car was stolen and she saw the exact spot where the thieves left the car when they stripped it. He is as practical a person as any, yet his ex-wife made him see that there really are abilities beyond the five senses and reason.

I first heard about the healer who gave me the natural medicine I’m using on my knee about five or six years ago. A relative of Sopheak’s was dying from cancer. The local hospital sent her to our house and I saw firsthand how close to death she was. The hospital recommended sending her to the Russian hospital in Phnom Penh first, to have tests to confirm she was dying from breast cancer. We did as instructed. The hospital confirmed it and said it was too late for any conventional treatment, so we sent back to her home village to die. Three months later, she returned to Sihanoukville, looking fit and happy. Unfortunately, she didn’t follow the healer’s advice and take the medicine for six months. The cancer returned and she died, but I’d seen his medicine work with my own eyes.

Years later, a wealthy man from Vietnam tried to cross the border, but was not allowed to enter Cambodia because the border officials were afraid he would die here. He sent his driver to fetch the healer. The man recovered and now the healer has patients coming from as far away as Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. He apparently charges on a sliding scale: wealthier patients pay much more than poorer patients pay. I hope to finally meet the healer soon. I’ll report on what happens when I do.

 

#holistichealth

#healing

Deforestation in Cambodia

road works in sihanoukville cambodia

Update: 17 September: The Cambodia Daily published an article about this issue yesterday. The photo below from the article graphically illustrates how bad it is.

Photo from Cambodia Daily. Click link above to read the story.

If you read my blog regularly, you’ve probably noticed that I avoid criticising Cambodia. My intention from the beginning was to present the positive side of this country because it seemed like everyone from bloggers to the MSM liked to pick on Cambodia. While some criticisms are valid, others are almost hallucinatory. In between are criticisms that could equally be applied to other countries, including those like America, which suffers under the illusion of superiority or “exceptionalism.” Unfortunately, one area where Cambodia stands out is deforestation. Deforestation in Cambodia has been occurring at such a rapid pace, the country has the highest rate per capita in the world.

Deforestation in Cambodia

I first became aware of the extent of the problem in 2006, when I travelled north to Laos. There wasn’t much of interest on the Cambodian side of the border as I passed plantations and pastures. It didn’t occur to me that vast areas of forest used to be there until I reached the border and suddenly the landscape changed dramatically.

Cambodia Laos border

Cambodia/Laos Border

Some might say the Cambodian side of the border, with its wide paved road and productive land represented “progress,” while the Laos side showed what a poor, backward country Laos was. Laos was a Communist country and Cambodia was embracing capitalism. Isn’t that a good thing? Well, to a degree capitalism is okay because it theoretically gives people greater opportunities. On the other hand, capitalism gives the wealthy opportunities, but they take advantage of opportunity by stealing from the poor.

Not everyone wants to be rich. Indigenous tribes everywhere, including in Cambodia, want to live their traditional lifestyle. I’ve met several Cambodians who have managed to do well, but still remember the days when they lived a simple village life as the best years of their life. As I write this, Sophie is staying with her grandmother in the rice fields of Svay Rieng. She’s recovering from a serious illness and enjoys being able to walk  outdoors without being bombarded by traffic noise. She often tells me that the best years of her life were the years she and her family were too poor to even live in a village.

Sophie took me to the place where she and her family lived one day. It was on the edge of an oil palm plantation. The hill behind their home, which was long gone, was completely barren. It saddened her to see what had become of her home. When she lived there, only 15 years before, the hill was forested and the oil palms didn’t extend so far into the jungle. We saw a few birds, but otherwise, the area was devoid of wildlife. She remembers her family being able to live off the land. They had no money, but would exchange goods they foraged or made (like charcoal) for rice and clothes.

I don’t have any answers. I’m as dependent on dollars as the next person. I’m just sad to see that greed is devouring our planet. What’s going to be left when it devours everything?

New Water Park in Sihanoukville

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The four kids in our household have been hanging out for the opening of the new water park in Sihanoukville ever since the day I foolishly pointed it out to them a couple of months ago. Well, the big day came just two days ago when free entry was offered for its opening day.

at water park1

Since I had to work, we couldn’t go until the afternoon. That’s probably just as well, because if we had gone in the morning, the kids would have wanted to stay all day. As it was, they had a great time for a couple of hours until the sun started to set.

I was a little worried because our kids are so young and the place was packed. As chaotic as it looked, though, no one was pushing or shoving and teenagers and adults always gave the little kids the right of way.

Only the pool is completely finished. They’re still working on the landscaping and a big cement ship in the front is only about half-built. We had to drive around the back to get in and inch our motorbikes through loose dirt and rocks to find a place to park. By the beginning of the next tourist season, work should be completed and we’ll have to fork over money to get in. Early reports say adults will pay $5 and children $3. That means it’ll cost us $22 every time we go there. The kids have us booked for every Sunday into the indefinite future.

Sihanoukville is Changing

I’ve been saying it for years and the water park is just more proof: Sihanoukville is changing. It’s always been popular with Cambodian families, but more foreign tourists are coming here with their children every year. The first few years I lived here, I rarely saw middle-aged or older couples and never families. Then I started seeing a few. Now I see them so often, it’s no longer noteworthy.

At the same time, the new police chief is determined to crack down on crime. An absurdly rich Russian man who has lived here for over a decade was recently arrested for fraud and bail was denied. After the new police chief started work, he called in the military to make their presence felt and I’m told he’s making individual police take their job seriously or lose it. A British backpacker was arrested on drug charges just the other day, so the word is out: Sihanoukville is not going to be a party town for wasted backpackers any more.

As I’ve repeatedly reported, Sihanoukville is not nearly as dangerous or seedy as the media and some bloggers make it out to be. There are pockets of seediness, but there are larger pockets of nice family beaches, mainly frequented by Cambodian families. Unfortunately, the worst areas are the ones where backpackers hang out, so those who come here for a day or two and think they know everything about the “scene” in Sihanoukville keep the wild west “Snookyville” image alive. Their days may be numbered, though. They are in the minority now and everyone from businesses to the local authorities are trying to make this a family destination. I hope they succeed.

Valentine’s Day in Sihanoukville 2015

I wasn’t going to write about Valentine’s Day in Sihanoukville this year because I wrote about it last year, but a couple of things changed my mind. First the good news.

The Valentine baby

The Valentine baby

Valentine’s Day is always an expensive day here. It goes way beyond buying flowers for your “valentine.” As Sophie says, “This one day for love.” Therefore, everybody you feel affection for gets at least a token gift. That means family and friends. Added up it came to a couple of hundred dollars this year. Part of that went towards buying stuff for a newborn baby that was born on the 13th, but Sophie also convinced me to buy the mother a bouquet of flowers. This was not awkward because the flowers are a token of affection, not necessarily romantic love.

I thought maybe it was a trend just in our family, but discovered otherwise last night when I went to King Chicken to get takeaway (Sophie went to a wedding, so the traditional dinner out didn’t happen). King Chicken was packed beyond capacity. It’s a family restaurant complete with indoor playground and Cambodian families were going out for Valentine’s Day in droves.

After I came home, Sophie’s little brother announced he was throwing a little Valentine’s Day party for the family and asked me to join in. He had bought a cake for the kids and beer for the adults. We had a falling out with him a few weeks ago and he took advantage of the opportunity to apologise to Mama, Papa and me for his bad behaviour.

This morning I visited a friend and he had a similar story to tell. Everybody in his family exchanged gifts. My friend scored a new shirt from one of the young men in the family.

Now for the bad news

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows I have a big problem with the Western media. They’re always picking on other countries and particularly like to point out problems in Cambodia. True to form, on 10 February the Washington Post posted an article, The country where Valentine’s Day is the most dangerous day of the year. Fair enough, they quoted government ministers, but the message was clear. Young Cambodian men think of Valentine’s Day as a day of rape and sexual coercion.

The conclusion drawn by the article’s author was completely skewed because it didn’t cover the upside of Valentine’s Day in Cambodia. It’s not the most dangerous day of the year for 9.5 out of 10 Cambodians who celebrate the day.

The Valentine cake

The Valentine cake

I also question the statistics. After President Obama announced that an “estimated one in five women has been sexually assaulted during her college years,” the anti-Obama media was quick to find loopholes in the argument. Not so in the article about rape in Cambodia. It happens, sure, as it happens everywhere, and it’s never to be condoned, but the American media is not a Cambodian moral authority and can’t really take the moral high ground on this or any other topic. Rather than pick on others to make Americans feel better about themselves, the U.S. media should be focusing on cleaning up its own house. But that’s not what the MSM does.

No, Valentine’s Day is not the most dangerous day of the year in Cambodia. Like so many holidays Cambodia has borrowed from other countries, they put their own spin on it. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a day to celebrate love in all its forms in the West like they do in Cambodia?

valentine baby 2